A new Pentax camera arrives, triggering memories of those that preceded it

January 31, 2015  •  3 Comments


Shortly before Christmas like Eve waving an apple under Adam's starving nose, Pentax started reducing the price of their flagship K3 DSLR camera with discounts and rebates.  I'm not very good with temptation, in fact had I been in the garden of Eden I would probably have grown an orchard and started a cider press, so I finally gave in and purchased a Pentax K3.  I have been savouring every second with this lovingly crafted piece of photographic apparatus the way one might savour the company of an incomparably beautiful muse. 

It is the first time that I have ever owned Pentax's latest and greatest flagship DSLR camera.   The K3 offers all the traditional attributes of Pentax SLR's - incomparable build quality, gorgeous handling that makes you feel as if the camera has been custom made for you and image quality that is class leading even against the Canon and Nikon heavyweights. Moreover if you're in a forest shooting a model as I was last week, with the sun already below the horizon and the light levels are falling fast, the K3's awesome new focussing engine will lock on target with a precision only prevously known to fighter pilots and weapons officers in charge of ballistic missile systems on the latest frigates.  I shot over 300 pictures in appalling light levels and the K3 missed focus only once.  By the end we had resorted to a paraffin lamp and moonlight and the K3 kept locking on, I was genuinely incredulous... 

Twenty four megapixels is a heck of a lot of detail and since getting the K3 I have been continually astounded by the razor sharp focus I'm seeing on eyebrows, eyes and individual strands of hair during portrait shoots.  I've spent over thirty years shooting high quality cameras and I've never seen quality like this coming off the page or screen.  The K3 is quite simply the greatest non-medium format camera Pentax have ever made.  It's probably the greatest APSC DSLR anyone has ever made.  It seems fitting that the company that invented the single lens reflex, that has led so many of the key developments for the past sixty years in photography has a new crown prince.

It's instructive to compare the Pentax K3 against Canon's recently launched flagship DSLR - the EOS 7D Mk2.  Let's leave aside the fact that the Canon costs almost twice as much as the Pentax and consider the sensor scores by independent testing lab DXO mark  http://www.dxomark.com/Cameras/Compare/Side-by-side/Canon-EOS-7D-Mark-II-versus-Pentax-K-3___977_914

DXO evaluate the raw image quality coming direct off the sensors in each camera and employ independent and rigorous laboratory testing techniques.  In short the Pentax scores higher in colour depth, dynamic range and high ISO low light shooting.  You can shoot in any light you like - bright sunlight, dark night, you can underexpose the shot and push your shadows up in post processing, you can shoot any subject anytime, anyplace but that Pentax is going to outgun the newly launched top of the line APSC DSLR Canon on every image quality parameter science can measure.  I just know what I'm seeing with my eyes and the Pentax is simply blisteringly sharp and clean.  It's better weathersealed too against ingress of sand, water, sleet, dust and rain.  It will take every Pentax lens ever made, all 25 million of them and they include some of the greatest lenses designed since the dawn of photography.   I've yet to track down a Pentax SMC FA 85mm F1.4, but one day I swear I will, because that lens has bokeh that looks like sunbeams in heaven and clarity that leaves even the most venerable Carl Zeiss designs trailing in its wake.

It was while considering the apex of engineering achievement that the K3 represents that I began to reflect on the journey I have taken in over thirty years of keen photography.  My first camera was the Pentax ME Super with 50mm F1.7 lens and I still have it, indeed I still occasionally shoot with the 50mm and it's my go-to macro lens with a set of extension tubes.  Here's mine:

I'm so very glad I still have my first camera and resisted the temptation to trade it in when upgrading.  I took my first faltering steps as a photographer with it in 1981 and it made me a better photographer because the metering was always lousy, so I learned to use it fully manual and assess the exposure required myself pretty quickly.  My first additions were a Velbon VGB-3 tripod (pictured) and later I bought a Tamron 80-200mm F3.8 lens for airshows and motorsport which I still have.  Much later I added a Tamron 24mm F2.5 lens which eventually developed a focus ring problem.  I well recall shooting Liverpool cathedral at night in 1983 and particularly enjoyed shooting my theatrical female cousin dressed as a gypsy in a poppyfield in Northampton back in the summer of 1985.  I dropped the Pentax on a glacier in Alaska in 1986 (it survived unscathed) and I toured Japan with it later that same year.  

Here it is with my Tamron 80-210mm F3.8:

I shot a lot of airshows and aeroplanes with this combination over the years (now an airline pilot I am a huge aviation fanatic and there's not much that sends shivers up my spine better than the sound of a Merlin or crackle of a jet engine)

By 1995 after fourteen years dependable service I decided the time had come to move to a more modern camera design and so purchased a Pentax MZ-5n.  The sophistication of its metering was a huge improvement on the ME Super and this model could be relied on to shoot accurate automatic exposures.  It also offered motor drive and autofocus built in and I shot extensively with it and enjoyed utilising both my existing lenses and a new Sigma 24-70mm F3.5-5.6 standard zoom that I purchased new.  I can only presume that cost prevented me from buying a Pentax standard zoom lens with the camera but I never much cared for the build quality of the Sigma, it was rather plastic although optically reasonable.  I don't even know if I still have it, it might conceivably still be in a loft somewhere and with the likely launch of a Pentax full frame DSLR in 2015 might actually be useful! 

I got some great shots of Paris in 1996 with this combination plus my wedding and honeymoon in Thailand in 2000 as well as New York, Mexico, Florida and then Monument Valley Utah in 2004.  In 1998 I had added the Tokina 80-400mm F4-5.6 telephoto autofocus zoom to my armoury while in Australia on a mission to shoot kangaroos in the bush.  As a lens it performed admirably on a range of airshow targets and is still in occasional use when I need very significant reach.  My favourite portrait of myself was taken in Paris with this camera by my then girlfriend Caroline and looking back it's amusing and faintly depressing to reflect on how handsome and young I look leaning nonchalently against the balcony of the Concorde St Lazare Hotel at Gare du Nord in Paris.  Judging by the fact my mother still has a framed print of this in her hall I suspect she thinks I look at my best too (oh to be 26 again!)

Here's my MZ-5n with the Tokina 80-400 AT-X fitted:

I eventually decided with the birth of my first child in 2005 that the time had come to move to a digital camera and so around 2005 I purchased my first DSLR, the Pentax Ist DS.  The MZ-5n which was my last film camera had served admirably for some ten years.  The Ist DS had six megapixels, great handling and the ability to work with all my existing Pentax lenses and I purchased it with the really rather good Pentax 18-55 DA F3.5-5.6 lens combination.  I loved this camera and have in fact enlarged prints to 30x20 inches from it and achieved impressive quality.  My wife took a favourite picture of my daughter and I holding hands and gazing out across one of the Lake District's many lakes and it still hangs framed on our landing.  This camera served us well as a family until I decided to upgrade to the Pentax K5, principally to enable me to shoot video and stills with one device.  It had become a chore carrying both a video camera and SLR system on holiday.  Sadly I part-exchanged my Pentax Ist DS against the K5 in March 2013 and so it is the only camera from my whole camera history that is no longer in my posession.  I regret that, if only for completeness.

March 2013 and in rolled the Pentax K5 on a tsunami of technology.  I approached my purchase with a very open mind and in fact considered a switch of system to the Nikon D7000.  I had always had something of a hankering for a Nikon camera, in part because of their professional credentials (Nikon and Canon had risen to become the two most common pro choices at this time) and so I actually walked into the camera shop and asked to see the Nikon D7000 before any Pentax.  The Nikon was a very well received camera with great image quality but felt very plastic in my hands and rather lightweight.  I asked if they had a Canon EOS 50D I could try and while better this still seemed a rather lightweight although very comfortably shaped camera.  My gut reation was that I simply didn't love either of them.  Next I tried the Pentax K5 and the second I picked it up I was shocked, it felt dense, heavy, serious and dramatically cold to the touch (because it's all metal unlike the others).  I couldn't believe the difference, the Pentax oozed quality and it was like comparing the build quality of a Mercedes Benz to that of a Kia, there was simply no comparison.  The cold Pentax felt like something created on another planet not merely another factory, almost like something salvaged from Area 51 and I utterly fell in love with it.  My one attempt to leave Pentax was foiled by the sheer class and quality of the product. 

This camera complete with Pentax 18-55 DA WR water resistant lens was a big step up from all that had gone before.  It was my first pro-level camera and was the departing flagship DSLR from Pentax and available at a very compelling price because its successor had just been launched.  As a result the professional build quality with weather-sealing and a solid magnesium body gave this camera a serious heft that all my previous cameras lacked.  It was also the first one I purchased a grip for.  My only complaint with Pentax over the years was that their bodies were rather small for a man with hands resembling those of a gorilla!  The grip instantly improved the handling, battery life and overall feel.  I was in love with this camera and its arrival led to me becoming rather more serious about my photography again.  A few months later I missed having an ultra wide angle lens and so decided to add the hugely impressive Pentax 12-24mm F4 lens to my arsenal.  It's an incredibly flexible and high quality lens and a delight to use especially for landscape and architectural work.

Here's my K5, now relegated to back-up body duties:


It's a formidable camera, even by today's standards and I've shot many thousands of fine pictures with it.  During 2014 I started jonathangorsephotography.com as a means of storing and exhibiting my work.  It also enabled me to provide secure access for any shoots I do with models or for family and friends.  In terms of lenses I added the Pentax DA 17-70 F4 SDM lens for portraiture and the Tamron 70-200mm F2.8 for fast telephoto work and the latter in particular really is a blisteringly sharp and fast lens.  The K5 proved an able professional camera and all my initial model shoots and commissions were undertaken with it until the K3 arrived at the end of 2014.  There truly is little that this camera can't do and it is a professional grade workhorse with excellent image quality and sublime handling.  It only had two limitations in my view:  firstly the autofocus system could very occasionally miss focus and secondly it shot video at awesome quality in a format called 'motion jpeg' which frankly is the best quality format possible on a DSLR, but the file sizes are gargantuan.  For my meagre family holiday needs such quality is frankly unnecessary and I prefer the smaller file sizes of the slightly lower quality Pentax K3 video format which followed it.

So that leads me back full circle to the Pentax K3 which is currently my main professional body.  It's faster, cleaner, slightly better ergonomically and put simply is an awesome photographic instrument I am proud to use.

Thirty four years of photography encompassed in five cameras and my life spent taking pictures since the age of eleven.  Thank-you to Pentax for being there on burning tropical beaches in far flung places, for travelling with me faster than a bullet on Concorde at Mach 2, for faithfully recording sunsets and sunrises, the birth of our child, her first steps, my engagement and mine and other's wedding days.  Thank-you for enduring tropical monsoons in Thailand, for being dropped on glaciers in the arctic circle and surviving, for shooting freezing moonlit cathedrals and for not succumbing during snowstorms on the summits of mountains.  In short for always enabling me to capture amazing pictures and memories from my life no matter wherever in the world I have been or how extreme the conditions.

Like an old friend you never let me down...




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